1982 World's Fair

The 1982 World's Fair, formally known as the Knoxville International Energy Exposition, was held in Knoxville, Tennessee, United States. The specialized Expo themed "Energy Turns the World", was recognized by the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE).

1982 Knoxville
The 1982 World's Fair logo
BIE-classSpecialized exposition
CategoryInternational specialized exposition
NameKnoxville International Energy Exposition
MottoEnergy turns the world
Area28 hectares (69 acres)
CountryUnited States
VenueWorld's Fair Park
Coordinates35.962°N 83.924°W / 35.962; -83.924
OpeningMay 1, 1982 (1982-05-01)
ClosureOctober 31, 1982 (1982-10-31)
Specialized expositions
PreviousExpo 81 in Plovdiv
Next1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans
Universal expositions
PreviousExpo '70 in Osaka
NextSeville Expo '92 in Seville
Horticultural expositions
PreviousFloralies Internationales de Montréal in Montreal
NextInternationale Gartenbauaustellung 83 in Munich
Horticultural (AIPH)Florida 1982

It opened on May 1, 1982, and closed on October 31, 1982, after receiving over 11 million visitors. Participating nations included Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, and West Germany.

The fair was constructed on a 70-acre (280,000 m2) site between downtown Knoxville and the University of Tennessee. The core of the site primarily consisted of a deteriorating Louisville and Nashville Railroad yard and depot. The railroad yard was demolished, with the exception of a single rail line, and the depot was renovated for use as a restaurant. The Sunsphere, a 266-foot (81 m) steel tower topped with a five-story gold globe, was built for the 1982 World's Fair. It still stands and remains a symbol for the city of Knoxville.

In 2007, the East Tennessee Historical Society opened an exhibit commemorating the 25th anniversary of the World's Fair.


Knoxville boosters developed the idea for a World's Fair in the city after the example of Spokane, Washington, which hosted a World's Fair in 1974. W. Stewart Evans, president of the Downtown Knoxville Association, proposed the world's fair idea to the city government.[1]

Knoxville Mayor Kyle Testerman appointed banker Jake Butcher to lead an exploratory committee, and Butcher served as the driving force behind the fair. Within the city, many people referred to the event as "Jake's Fair".[1] A body known as the Knoxville Foundation Inc. was established to organize and operate the event.[2] There was skepticism about the ability of Knoxville, described as a "scruffy little city" by a national publication, to successfully host a World's Fair.[3]

This was the second World's Fair to be held in Tennessee. The state's first endeavor was the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897, held in Nashville in Middle Tennessee.

Opening day

On May 1, 1982, the 1982 World's Fair opened with the theme "Energy Turns the World". Television commercials broadcast prior to the fair used the marketing tagline "You've Got To Be There".[4] The opening ceremony was broadcast on local and regional TV, with President Ronald Reagan arriving to open the fair.[1] TV figure Dinah Shore was the master of ceremonies, and artists such as Porter Wagoner and Ricky Skaggs performed as the gates opened.[5] A six-month pass to the fair sold for $100 (equivalent to $260 in 2018).[4]


The fair drew more than 11 million visitors, making it one of the most popular world's fairs in US history. It made a profit of $57, far short of the $5 million surplus projected by organizers and boosters.[2] Knoxville was left with a $46 million debt.[2]

Participating nations included Australia, Belgium, Canada, People's Republic of China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Greece, People's Republic of Hungary, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the United States, and West Germany.[6] Panama never occupied its pavilion space, which was eventually occupied by a group of Caribbean island nations.

The Peruvian exhibit featured a mummy that was unwrapped and studied at the fair. The Egyptian exhibit featured ancient artifacts valued at over US$30 million.[7] Hungary, the home country of the Rubik's Cube, sent a large, automated Rubik's Cube with rotating squares for the entrance to its pavilion. The cube remains in downtown Knoxville, where it has been displayed in the lobby of the Holiday Inn World's Fair Park.[8][9] Every night of the fair, at 10 pm, a 10-minute fireworks display was presented that could be seen over much of Knoxville.

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots played a preseason football game at Neyland Stadium on August 14, 1982. The Steelers won the game 24–20.[10]

An NBA Exhibition game took place between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers took place at Stokely Athletic Center in October 23, 1982.

A TV station, KM2XKA on Channel 7, was built for the fair, initially specializing in World's Fair information. It later converted to DTV-only WMAK, an independent station.


Local hotels and other accommodations were not allowed to take reservations directly. Room reservations for everything from hotels to houseboats were sold in a package with fair admission tickets through the first 11 days of the fair, and were handled by a central bureau, Knoxvisit. Its financial and administrative troubles resulted in reservations being taken over by PLM.[11] It also struggled with the operation and filed for bankruptcy.[12][13]

Jake Butcher's United American Bank failed the year after the fair. On February 14, 1983, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took over the bank due to irregularities in financial records. This caused speculation that the failure was due in part to his financing of the World's Fair.[14]


In 1991, the city of Knoxville demolished the US Pavilion in a controlled blast. It had structural failure that could not be safely resolved. The cleared site was developed for a parking lot along Cumberland Avenue,[15] adjacent to the current site of the Knoxville Convention Center in what is now called World's Fair Park.

The former site of the Korean and Saudi Arabian pavilions and the Tennessee Gas Industries exhibit became host to a regular concert series for eight years. The site of the Japanese Pavilion became the new location for the Knoxville Museum of Art. The Elm Tree Theater next door was converted to part of a courtyard of the Museum. The elm tree was later struck and destroyed by lightning. The courtyard of the theater has remained empty. Many of the other locations of pavilions south of the park reverted to the University of Tennessee.

In 1996, Knoxville and the World's Fair figured prominently in an episode of The Simpsons, "Bart on the Road". Bart and his friends travel to visit the fair, only to learn that it closed a decade before.

In 2000, the park was closed for two years while a convention center was added in the space formerly occupied by Rich's/Millers Garage, the KUB Substation, and the former site of America's Electric Energy Exhibit.

In 2002, the World's Fair Park was reopened to general events and concerts, such as Earth Fest and Greek Fest. A July 4 celebration is held there every year, with the Knoxville Symphony playing a free concert with a massive fireworks display. The July 4, 2007, celebration was held in conjunction with festivities commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the 1982 World's Fair.

The following day, July 5, 2007, the Sunsphere's observation deck reopened to the public.

The Tennessee Amphitheater, the only other structure other than the Sunsphere that remains from the World's Fair, was condemned to demolition in 2002.[16] Popular sentiment supported restoring it, and the theater was renovated between 2005 and 2007, reopening in 2007.[17] In 2007 the amphitheater was voted one of the top 15 architectural works of East Tennessee by the East Tennessee chapter of the American Institute of Architects.[18]


Many collectible items were made specifically for the World's Fair, including cups, trays, plates, and belt buckles. Some notable items include:

  • With the focus of the World's Fair on technology, video games of the era were also featured at the Fair. In the arcade area, attendees could find seven video arcade game tokens that had been minted for the Fair, each depicting a different and popular game of the time. The seven games on each of the tokens are Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Qix, Gorf, Scramble, and Donkey Kong.[19]
  • A special Coca-Cola pin was given to 500 dignitaries on opening day.
  • Worlds Fair Beer was also released at the beginning of the fair. 250,000 cases of beer was sold during the fair, totaling nearly 6 million cans sold over the six months. Rick Kuhlman, who was a marketing director for a beer wholesaler at the time, had come up with the idea for the beer. He had to pre-sell 10,000 cases of the beer to pay for the initial batch. The beer would go on to be released in nine different colored cans, beginning with red, then blue, and eventually, green, brown, gold, black, purple, yellow, and orange. Each color represented its own production batch and when a color was sold out, that was it. The beer was often purchased and never drank, as people thought the cans would one day be a collectible.[20] To observe the 35th anniversary of the fair, World's Fair Beer was being made in May 2017 and will be available at various bars around Knoxville.[21]

New inventions

The Knoxville World's Fair debuted several new inventions, including touch screen display screens, Tetra Pak boxed shelf-stable milk, and the Cherry Coke flavor by Coca-Cola.[22]

The fast food chain, Petro's Chili & Chips made their debut at the fair. They currently have locations in East Tennessee and around the state.[23]

See also


  1. Bruce Wheeler, "Knoxville World's Fair of 1982," Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 2002.
  2. Associated Press, 1982 "World's Fair Shows $57 Profit", via Philadelphia Inquirer, February 3, 1985, Page F11
  3. Katie Allison Granju, The "Scruffy Little City" pulls off a real World's Fair, WBIR-TV, September 1, 2006; updated May 24, 2007
  4. East Tennessee Historical Society, 20th Anniversary of the 1982 World's Fair Archived February 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. 2002. Retrieved: April 30, 2010.
  5. WTVK TV 26 Opening Ceremonies (May 1, 1982); WBIR-TV (May 1, 2002)
  6. "The Fair Participants". Harlan Daily Enterprise. April 23, 1982. pp. 6B. Retrieved September 29, 2011.
  7. 1982 World's Fair Research Site, by Bruce Schulman
  8. Fred Brown, Rubik's Cube: Coming 'round again; World's Fair icon's future not yet squared away, Knoxville News Sentinel, July 2, 2007
  9. Knoxville, Tennessee – World's Largest Rubik's Cube, RoadsideAmerica website, accessed August 9, 2009
  10. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1755&dat=19811128&id=2MYyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=H2gEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1889,6732041&hl=en
  11. UPI, Tennessee Sues World's Fair For 3,500 Tourists' Refunds, The New York Times, December 12, 1982
  12. OLYMPIC-SIZE TASK: Committee faces challenge in managing hotel bookings, The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution, October 15, 1991, page C1
  13. NewspaperARCHIVE.com – Search Old Newspapers Online
  14. Knoxville News Sentinel, Carnival and collapse: 1980s brought World's Fair and Butcher bank failure, Knoxville News Sentinel, September 30, 2012
  15. "Report on Demolition of US Pavilion", News 8, April 1991.
  16. Doug Mason (September 18, 2005). "Professor sings praises of iconic World's Fair structure". The Knoxville News Sentinel. Archived from the original on August 19, 2016.
  17. "World's Fair Park Amphitheater". World's Fair Park. Archived from the original on June 30, 2016. Retrieved July 2, 2016.
  18. Doug Mason (December 16, 2007). "Area architects' picks for ET's Top 15 structures may surprise you". The Knoxville News Sentinel.
  19. Video Game Arcade Token Gallery, Arcade Token Gallery , digthatbox.com, October 9, 2014
  20. Thirty years later, Knoxvillians celebrate 1982 energy expo
  21. "Relaunch: World's Fair Beer on sale again". Retrieved July 20, 2017.
  22. TIME Mar. 04, 1985
  23. Petro's Official Site "About Us" page
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